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Trouble meeting your fitness goals? Try this incentive

If you’re like most of the estimated 100 million Americans who devised New Year’s resolutions last Jan. 1, you probably put “exercise more” at or near the top of your list.

So, how’s that working out for you?

As University of Minnesota psychology professor Marti Hope Gonzales noted a few years ago, some 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions are forsaken within six weeks. (That would be Feb. 12 this year, by my reckoning.) A 2007 British survey of more than 3,000 adults concurred: It found that only 12 percent of us actually achieve our resolutions’ goals. (I’m actually kind of surprised that it’s that high.)

Psychologists have proposed a host of reasons for this annual mass failure of resolve: unrealistic goals and expectations (the “false hope syndrome”), for example, and an unwillingness to acknowledge that we don’t really want to change our bad health habits no matter how much we’d like to reinvent ourselves.

So how do we motivate ourselves to keep moving, day after day, week after week, and year after year? Some of us join gyms, but as the New York Times pointed out in an article this week, gyms become boring to many people, who soon stop going — even if they’ve prepaid their membership fees.

Well, as the Boston Globe also reported this week, two recent Harvard grads, Yifan Zhang and Geoff Oberhofer, are taking a different psychological tack to get Bostonians, at least, to stick to their fitness goals. And, like so many successful psychological motivations, this one (a program called Gym-Pact) centers on financial reward:

Gym-Pact offers what Zhang calls motivational fees — customers agree to pay more if they miss their scheduled workouts, literally buying into a financial penalty if they don’t stick to their fitness plans. The concept arose from Zhang’s behavioral economics class at Harvard, where professor Sendhil Mullainathan taught that people are more motivated by immediate consequences than by future possibilities. …
Gym-Pact negotiated a group rate with Planet Fitness, then paid the membership fees for participants, who in return for a free membership agreed to work out at least four times per week. If they fail to follow the schedule in any one week, the participants pay $25. If they leave the program for any reason other than injury or illness, they will pay $75. For now the fees will be used to pay for the gym memberships and to build a financial aid fund.

It’s too early to know whether this experiment will work. But money isn’t the only way to motivate people to use their muscles more. Whimsy works, too, as the delightful Swedish video below shows:

Have fun exercising this weekend.

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